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Kidnapped twice, trainer Antonio Sano eyeing Kentucky Derby

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — Getting to what will be his first Kentucky Derby is on Antonio Sano’s mind almost constantly these days.

To say he took an unusual route would be an understatement.

Kidnapped on two separate occasions eight years ago in his native Venezuela – once for just a few hours, the other for 36 harrowing days, both times being freed after paying ransoms that he prefers not to disclose – the trainer and his family came to the United States to start their lives over in what they hoped to be a safer environment.

Fast forward eight years, and the 54-year-old Sano has a horse named Gunnevera, the favorite for Saturday’s Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and one that seems to already be among the top contenders for the Kentucky Derby.

“I had a little problem,” Sano said. “Now I have a big opportunity.”

A “little problem.” That’s what he calls being held twice against his will, inevitably wondering if he would ever see his family again. Now he’s a few weeks away from stepping onto the grounds of Churchill Downs for the first time, assuming Gunnevera – a winner in four of his last six starts, with three of those victories coming in graded stakes races – gets out of this weekend with no problems.

Long before Gunnevera ever saw the track, Sano knew there was something special.

“I bought the horse in September 2015,” Sano said. “I worked the horse three or four times and I said, `This is my horse.’ He’s good.”

Gunnevera already has enough points to assure himself of a spot in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field. Still, Sano hopes he’s done enough to set Gunnevera up for a win in the Florida Derby – the race that Nyquist used to prep for his win at Churchill Downs a year ago.

“It’s very important, this moment,” Sano said.

These are very troubled times for Venezuela, and that isn’t new.

The U.S. Department of State has long warned Americans from going to Venezuela, saying “violent crime – including murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, and carjacking – is endemic throughout the country.” Just this week, Venezuela’s Supreme Court ruled it can take over the powers of congress in a move that some said was a step toward installing a dictatorship in the South American nation.

Despite it all, Sano is proud of where he’s from – and what he’s come from.

“Venezuela is my history. America is my now,” Sano said. “At this moment, I’m working for my kids. My kids are what it’s all about for me. I’m working for their better.”

It’s no coincidence that Gunnevera’s ownership group includes two Venezuelans. Sano, of course, is Venezuelan. So it only makes sense that the jockey be Venezuelan as well – and that jockey is Javier Castellano, the winner of the last four Eclipse Awards as the top rider in the game.

Castellano called Sano to ask for the job. It doesn’t always work that way at Derby time.

“Maybe it’s meant to be,” said Castellano, who has ridden in 10 Kentucky Derbys. “Who knows?”

Sano doesn’t speak often about what he went through, and when he does he keeps certain details private. He said he’s still very leery of his family’s safety, and takes extra measures to help ensure their security in the U.S.

But Castellano knows the tale well, and raves about the person Sano is.

“It’s amazing,” Castellano said. “One thing you have to realize is to appreciate life. You help that kind of guy. He’s always helpful, very humble guy, always appreciates the opportunities people give to him. Hey, he’s lucky to be here. So you just enjoy the ride.”

Long shot Puig finishes second in Del Mar debut

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DEL MAR, Calif. — Long shot Puig finished second in his career debut at Del Mar, with Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig supporting the horse on Twitter.

Puig lost by 3 1/4 lengths in the $60,000 fifth race on Sunday at the seaside track north of San Diego. He paid $17.80 and $9.60 at 32-1 odds under jockey Santiago Gonzalez.

The Kentucky-bred colt earned $12,000 in the 6 1/2-furlong race. He is trained by Scott Hansen and owned by Gary Broad.

Puig of the Dodgers re-tweeted a photo of the horse leaving the paddock before the race.

Songbird to run at Saratoga, won’t face males at Del Mar

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Songbird will return to Saratoga to run in the $700,000 Personal Ensign on Aug. 26 rather than taking on male horses in the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar a week earlier.

Owner Rick Porter of Fox Hill Farm said Sunday that Saratoga is his favorite track and the Personal Ensign is the right race for the 4-year-old filly.

Songbird is 13-1 in her career and has earnings of over $4.5 million. Her only loss came by a nose to Beholder in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

Songbird put in a five-furlong workout at Del Mar on Sunday, completing the distance in 1:01 in her home state of California.

Trained by Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, Songbird earned back-to-back Grade 1 victories at Saratoga last year in the Coaching Club American Oaks and the Alabama.